Building the same old world – a FantasyCon panel

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I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the ‘Building the same old world’ panel at FantasyCon. Based on the panel description it could have gone two different ways – focusing on the mechanics of world building in fantasy fiction, or focusing on diversifying the worlds we build. In the end it was an interesting mix of the two, thanks to the excellent panellists. These were….

One of the results of all this world building
  • Camille Lofters – the panel moderator  and a PhD student who is dealing with world building in her thesis – how cool is that as a subject to study?
  • Foz Meadows – a YA fantasy writer and one of the people who most impressed me over the weekend.
  • Tiffani Angus – a creative writing PhD student who writes in many genres
  • Peter Higgins – writes epic fantasy based on 20th century Europe.
  • Kate Elliott – a guest of honour at the con and writer of all sorts of speculative fiction.

Camille did a great job of moderating a panel for the first time, keeping the conversation flowing without intruding too much with her own views.

The tension of world building

‘Our preconceptions are the hardest thing to push through.’ – Kate Elliott

One theme that came out early on was the tension in world building between presenting the familiar to draw people in and the unfamiliar to interest them and make a fantasy world. As Camille pointed out, deviating from accepted reality risks confusing and alienating readers, and so you have to be careful how you do it. It’s important not to try to change everything, but to give readers things they understand.

All the panellists found exploring imaginary worlds useful in writing, whether to create a lens for exploring contemporary issues as Foz does, or to tell stories Kate couldn’t read when she was young.

Challenging assumptions

‘It’s so sad because speculative fiction is about all this cool shit and there’s this one thing that people can’t get past.’ – Tiffani Angus

Discussion turned onto the concept of presenting more diverse and unusual worlds, combining conversations about world building with ongoing debates about representation in fantasy.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that the majority of fantasy is built from a male Euro-centric perspective. It doesn’t take long for debates about this to get angry, and that was something Camille directly raised. As Foz pointed out, people who are used to seeing themselves constantly represented get confused and angry when this changes, as their expected representation has been taken away – this reminded me of Sue Archer’s guest post here on the lack of women in genre blockbusters.

Kate gave some great insight into how to approach this sensitively. We should like what we like and be courteous about what we read, because other people will like it even if we don’t. What’s comfortable to read varies from one person to another, and it’s useful to think about whose comfort is being defined in any story.

But for all the maturity of Kate’s point, a line from Peter gave me a certain dark satisfaction – ‘One of the things that comforts me all the time is that most people hate most things.’

Fantasy and fantasising

‘If you can get away with it then it works.’ – Kate Elliott

Peter also drew a distinction that we easily forget but that’s important when talking about fantasy – the difference between fantasy and fantasizing.

Fantasy is things like a dragon, an imaginative creation empty of defined reality, that the author can shape and readers will believe in.

Fantasizing is transforming the real into something unreal, like making a hitman pleasant. It upsets readers’ expectations, and so can be harder to believe.

My own thought on this is that what’s fantasy and what’s fantasizing may vary from one person to another, but it’s a very important distinction to make in trying to create your combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Of course there was more

I sadly don’t have time to write up everything that was said in the panel, or even everything that interested me. This particular discussion brought together two different but related subjects and made something interesting out of them. I hope that I’ve given you a taste of that.

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